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Growing Number Of Turkish Military Officers Seek Asylum In The U.S.


We have an update today to our story of a former Turkish naval officer. He fled his country with his wife and kids, saying he was wrongly accused of taking part in a coup. When he was on this program yesterday, we disguised his voice to protect his identity.


UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH NAVAL OFFICER: (Through interpreter) At first, we didn't believe that they would come for us. But one day, one of my supervisors called me and told me that we are suspending your job. I am not involved. I condemned a coup attempt.

INSKEEP: This officer received asylum in the United States to get protection from Turkey, which is a NATO ally. Now, here's the additional information - more than two dozen other former Turkish officers are in this country seeking asylum, afraid they will be jailed if they return home. NPR's Tom Bowman has been following their story for years and is on the line. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are these officers?

BOWMAN: Well, they're from the Turkish army, navy and air force. They range from major to the senior ranks. And when the coup happened, they were all ordered home from this NATO training command in Norfolk, Va. But they were worried. A fellow Turkish officer at the command obeyed and went home because his wife was sick. She went to the hospital, Steve; he went to jail. So these guys stayed in the Virginia area and are seeking asylum. And they, too, say they played no role in any coup against the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Some work now as commercial airline pilots; others are college professors, high school teachers, and one works as a manager for Amazon. And they've really been embraced by the Norfolk community. They go to Thanksgiving dinners, parties. They have close American military friends. It's really quite extraordinary.

INSKEEP: That is an amazing story. And yet, you mentioned they are waiting for the possibility of asylum. Unlike the person we heard yesterday, they don't have a final determination. They must be living their lives day to day.

BOWMAN: You know, they really are. They've all been interviewed by U.S. officials, so they're hopeful, and the asylum requests are pending. But again, this is unprecedented. You have officers from a NATO country seeking asylum from another NATO country. And Steve, I think it shows that relations with Turkey continue to deteriorate. Some senior U.S. officers I talked with say they know these guys and others arrested in Turkey. They say they're under suspicion not because of any coup activity, but because they either work for NATO, work with Americans, spent time in the U.S. or speak perfect English. And privately, they worry about the Turkish government, as it gets more and more authoritarian and anti-American.

INSKEEP: Well, what is the Turkish government saying, as the United States allows these officers not to return home as ordered and even considers asylum for them?

BOWMAN: You know, nothing really at this point. Turkey's not talking about it. But of course, the asylum requests have not been granted yet; just for that Turkish officer in California. But again, relations are getting worse, and U.S. officials worry about it because Turkey is not only a NATO partner, but it's strategically located in the southern end of Europe. They have a key airfield. They border the Middle East. Some officers I talked with say the relations will continue to spiral downward.

INSKEEP: Trump administration has not been too friendly to asylum-seekers, generally. Have they been welcoming to these guys?

BOWMAN: Well, this all started before the Trump administration, so we'll see what happens. Again, they've been interviewed, but no final decision on the asylum request yet.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON LEISURE'S "GULUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.